The mountain bike national championships, if held, could have a very different look in 2020.
USA Cycling sent out its latest communication Tuesday regarding its premier mountain bike event that was postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally scheduled for July 6-12 in Winter Park, there is now hope to run the event in August with a decision to come no later than July 1. Previously, there was fear that the event might be canceled or that only elite professional races would be held if dates conflicted too much with the start of a new school year for junior riders.
Now, the potential plan is to hold enduro and downhill racing Aug. 13-16, while cross-country races would be held Aug. 20-23. USA Cycling said it would next communicate its plans June 30.
Dozens of athletes from Durango and Fort Lewis College mix with thousands from across the country to compete at USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships each year, and Durango has a proud tradition of winning numerous Stars and Stripes championship jerseys from the junior ranks up through the elite professional levels.
This year, though, Durango racers may not line up against each other or other foes at the start line. Tuesday’s announcement introduced the idea of cross-country races being held in a time trial format with only one racer going off the start line at a time and others to follow at timed intervals to accommodate social distancing requirements.
“We are working on several options to meet the mass gathering requirements set by the state and county. To meet these requirements, we are exploring running downhill, enduro and cross-country only in time trial format on two separate weekends,” USA Cycling said in a news release. “Aside from our obligations to meet local permitting requirement, we want to make sure that we offer our participants (an) event that is as safe as possible.
“We recognize that changes such as these may dishearten those who have been holding out hope for a sense of normalcy that comes with a regular training schedule and a quest for nationals. We and our local organizing committees have worked through countless options for our national championships, and this is one additional option that may be needed for safety and to meet regulations.”
That announcement was met with mixed reactions and left some with more questions than answers.
“I saw the email, and I’m still not sure if that includes elite pro racers or just the amateurs,” Keegan Swenson, the defending cross-country mountain bike elite men’s national champion, said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “I don’t know if the UCI would count that kind of race, but maybe they’d make an exception. At this point, I’d be excited to do anything. If it is the time trial style, I’ll take it and won’t complain if that’s what we have to do.”
Still, Swenson thought there are other alternatives that could be explored, such as a field as small as the top-20 riders in current points or from last year’s national championship race.
“That would be my preference. It’s a better solution than doing a time trial,” he said. “As cool as it could be to do something different, that would not be mountain bike racing. I think USAC needs to come up with a compromise and find a way to let us race and figure it out. Even if it’s a time trial, we’re still in the paddock together. I’m not a doctor, so it’s hard for me to say, but I think we will be exposed to each other one way or another, whether it’s pre-riding or everything else that goes on at a race.
“Also, the race usually splits apart so fast. I think we could wear a Buff at the start and then pull it down once the race became separated. I just think there has got to be a better way to let us all race together and do it properly.”
Another question Swenson raised was whether the race would be a normal length or if it would be shortened to one or two laps. If riders go off at intervals, he envisions there would still be passing throughout the course, especially if it was a five-lap race.
For Durango’s Maddie Jo Robbins, a first-year under-23 racer who won the previous two junior age 17-18 cross-country national titles, the idea of getting to race for the first time in a new age division is enough to entice her to Winter Park, no matter the format.
“I think it sounds very intriguing,” the recent Durango High graduate said. “I actually think it could be a lot of fun. Since this season hasn’t been normal thus far and there isn’t really a safe way of revamping a normal season, I think a change of pace could prove to be a refreshing new challenge. And we know it won’t be a forever thing, so I think it’s a great year to have some fun trying new things.”
If mountain bikers aren’t going head-to-head with a clear idea of what will happen at the finish line, Robbins and Swenson agree it will become as much of a mental game as a physical challenge.
“You have to be able to really dig deep within yourself since you don’t have competitors next to you pushing you,” Robbins said. “I think it will come down to much more of a mental race.”
The amateur road national championships, originally scheduled for June 25-28 in Tennessee, have a new date set of Sept. 10-13 with a decision to be made by July 15. The pro road national championships, which were scheduled for this weekend in Florida, have not yet been rescheduled and also have a July 15 date set for a decision. Durango brothers Colby and Quinn Simmons will have high hopes of winning national title jerseys on the road this year.
So far, the USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships scheduled for Oct. 15-18 at Purgatory Resort in Durango have not been altered.
“We want to be clear that even though events may be currently postponed, if we cannot reasonably ensure the safety of our members, volunteers and host communities, we will not run a national championship,” USA Cycling stated. “We will continue to provide status updates over the next couple of months, and we will not open any registration until we are confident we can successfully and safely hold an event.”